Mike Brighton: Leader of potato industry in Norfolk

One of the leaders of the potato industry, Mike Brighton, has died aged 74 after a short illness at his North Walsham home.

He built up a major family business over almost half a century, latterly specialising in supplying quality potatoes to top retail customers, something now run by his two sons.

Born and schooled in Long Sutton, he joined a local potato merchant Johnson's of Long Sutton. Given responsibility for Norfolk, he worked hard to build up new business in what was then deemed a non-traditional potato county.

Mr Brighton founded RBR Potatoes with fellow Lincolnshire potato merchants Wal Richmond and Eve Reeve in 1965.

Two years later, they bought Carlton Farm, near North Walsham, which was a rundown fruit farm with wooden sheds. Today, it is a 12-acre site with storage and trading facilities and offices, with 200ha of arable land.

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Mr Brighton started in the industry in 1955 and was part of the potato revolution from days when crops were picked by hand and loaded into a horse and cart by gangs of between four and 20 people. They might lift three tons a day when today's multi-row machine could harvest 300 tonnes with four people.

And, potatoes were stored in 'graves' in Lincolnshire and Norfolk, which could be a mile long. Even in 1970, two thirds of the potato crop was stored outside in these clamps.

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When he started his business, he had not obtained his official Potato Marketing Board permit, recalled Norfolk grower William Donald.

He had sold crisping potatoes to Smiths but they had been rejected.

'We started at 5pm and finished very late that night having unloaded two bulkers by hand into 1cwt hessian sacks so the PMB could spray dye on them.'

He was known as a true gentleman throughout the industry, said Mr Donald, who headed the country's leading potato marketing co-operative, Anglian Produce. More than a quarter of a century ago, the world of potato merchanting was notorious for some often unscrupulous characters.

He encouraged growers to plant particular varieties, and for many years was keen on the Dutch chipper Bintje. He then arranged to market and pack the crop to mutual advantage, using his skills to market crops.

It was a successful strategy for grower and merchant.

'Ultimately the consumer has benefited in terms of quality price variety and range and good potatoes the year round. When I look back over the years it is quite incredible the big changes that have happened,' Mr Brighton told the EDP in 2007.

A great supporter of Norwich City, he and was instrumental behind the scenes in encouraging Martin Peters to stay at Carrow Road.

He was also a great supporter of charities and good causes and with his wife, Wendy, they raised significant amounts for the Jenny Lind and also Quidenham Children's hospice, now EACH, over the years.

A sponsor of sport, he supported Richard Vince, who became European and world kickboxing champion. And an enthusiast for keeping fit, he also ran the Ber Street gym in Norwich, with Cyril Durrant for many years.

After holidaying in Gambia, he also started supporting local schools and even young entrepreneurs.

He raised funds for new school buildings and even had a toilet block, a first for one school, named in his honour.

Outside the world of potatoes, he enjoyed gardening and especially his beloved koi carp.

When otters destroyed half his prized collection, he immediately installed an electric fence, which has proved remarkably effective.

He leaves a widow, Wendy, sons Mark and Stuart, five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Friday, January 27 at St Nicholas Church, North Walsham, at 12.30pm.

Michael Pollitt

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